Three Paths to and from Relationship.

On Mondays I go to therapy. This is a new addition to my schedule, so my relationship with this therapist is just beginning. But despite the fact that I’ve only had two sessions so far, there is a sensitivity to the undercurrents in my life that has resulted from my openness to delve deeper into my soul with someone else. The intention to do this work has been enough to initiate it.

This week my focus has been on relationship. My mind has been turning that word over and over and looking at from all different angles. And it was all a result of one question my therapist asked me: “Is there someone in your life who you’d be willing to take a risk with and go deeper?” This simple question has led me down several different interesting and unexpected paths this week.

A story, in which I recognize that I don’t like to be alone.

Before I take you down these paths with me, let me tell you a story. Once I was a little girl growing up on a farm in a house heated by a wood stove and the bodies of six healthy active children. I was rarely alone, and as one of the few true extroverts in my family, I never saw that as a bad thing. 

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Even at night I shared a bed with my older sister. Sometimes she would force me to lie on her side of the bed for 10 minutes while she lay on mine so that when we switched her side would be nice and toasty. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in my adult head, but at the time we were both convinced that I was so much warmer than her that I warmed up her spot more than she warmed up mine. But it didn’t really matter that much to me. To have companionship even while sleeping was enough to put up with any sibling tension. If I kept her physically warm, she kept me emotionally safe.

I don’t think I realized how much I relied on her until the day she went on a two week trip without me. For the first time in my life, I was forced to sleep alone and the prospect was terrifying to me. I was so used to her protective presence that I slept with our large stuffed bear at my back each night to keep myself from feeling exposed to whatever dangers lurked outside our dark windows.

Path 1, in which I unexpectedly cry over unhealed wounds and loneliness.

So, with that little peek into how I tick, let us proceed with this week’s journey. Monday I went to therapy. During my session we touched briefly on the need for healthy supportive friendships. And my therapist asked the above mentioned question.

On Wednesday morning I sat at my table in my patio visualizing my relationship with a particular friend, practicing the ability to sit with and then let go, as I often cling to people. As I let that friend go, I was suddenly aware of so many other people. The names of my family and other people I love, as well as the general sense of the community that we are physically surrounded with here on campus, filled my head, one after another. I was aware of an interconnectedness that left me with an actual physical sensation of tingling energy. I felt joy and peace as I sat with these people.

But it didn’t end there. As is my morning practice, I picked up my journal to record my experience and see where it led me. That path should have been full of light, but it got dark surprisingly fast. With my mind full of these people I thought about the question my therapist had asked. Which of these people could I go deeper with? There are several that I am already doing that with, but as I pondered my present community I was hit with grief. A past event emerged and a wound reopened and before the morning was out I found myself sobbing in the car after I dropped the kids off at school. 

I am not at liberty to share the details of that event because it would trespass on the privacy of others, and that is part of the problem. It is hard to know how to navigate a painful situation with transparency and sensitivity. How to keep private what belongs to others and still process the pain that is mine. There is a lot of perceived rejection surrounding this event. Rejection that I recognize is mostly in my head, but the pain I internalized is still very real. And as I cried tears of pain and anger and grief, I realized that because of this event, I chose to start looking at my present community as temporary rather than essential. I withdrew. And therefore I have experienced loneliness as a result.

Path 2, in which I remember that loss is part of life.

I pulled myself together, made a mental note that this would probably be something worth discussing in my next Monday session and headed to work. It was a good day. Work went well, and there was an interaction with someone that was significant to me. Someone brought up Emma, and in our brief conversation, even though I had tears in my eyes, I appreciated the connection this friend initiated and the connection to my daughter that it allowed me to reinforce.

I didn’t think much more of it until Thursday morning when I woke from a dream in which I was pregnant. This is sort of a recurring theme in many of my dreams, and as I usually do, I wondered where it came from. What is it that lies deep within me that brings this out? 

I was exhausted, and I was facing one of the hardest days of my week, so I put the dream aside and continued with my morning routine. There were no fascinating events in my quiet time and my journaling was filled with recognition that the day was going to be hard and I would need to be aware of self-care.

It wasn’t until I sat on the bus headed to work that I found myself on this second path. Deep sadness hit me. It was very real, but very comfortable. The kind of sadness I don’t mind inviting in and sitting with. I thought of Emma and of loss, and I held the sadness close. And I realized that this was also a story of relationship — relationship lost.

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This path is very familiar to me. This particular journey down this well trodden path began last week. One of the reasons relationship came up in my therapy session on Monday was because of a conversation I had with a friend about the need to hold people loosely, with an open hand. The authority in which I spoke to her was experience. The two examples I used were the loss of my child Emma and the journey over the last two years to see myself as separate from my husband, a journey that has allowed me to love both myself and him more fully. It is in fact just a deeper and more serious version of the lesson I learned as a little girl learning to sleep alone. The words I wrote to her were these: “You see, in order to really help others, we need to reach out to them from a place of centeredness in ourselves. When we do that, we are actually able to offer them a place of stability and safety. If we are reaching out to them because we are defined by them or because we cannot imagine our lives without them, then we are not safe and it is hard for us to help them be safe.”

I’ve walked this path before, and I feel comfortable on it. I may be noticing new things along the way, like the fact that my pregnancy dreams perhaps relate to the death of the  relationship with my daughter, but I sort of feel like I know where this path goes.

It is of course when we think we know where we are going that we find ourselves somewhere completely new and unexpected. Path 2 was actually very much a shadow of path 1, but I didn’t make that connection until I had walked path 3 and then taken the time to write the journey down.

Path 3, in which I am humbled in the realization that I have barely begun to know how to love.

Thursday ended with a long talk with another friend via phone. The connection between us is strong and vibrant and fills me with energy. Which is why I woke early on Friday morning with my mind and body still humming with that energy. But this is a person that I tend to cling to, and my time in silence Friday morning was spent reminding myself that I am separate, but connected. To hold him with an open hand.

I envisioned another connection that morning as well. Still, strong and stable, a cord stretched between my heart and my husband’s. I was comfortable in those feelings, but something niggled at the back of my mind. I had used my relationship with John several times over the last week as an example of holding someone with an open hand, but something didn’t feel quite right. As I pondered my hesitancy to envision this connection with a pulsing vibrant power, rather than the still quiet strength that I was feeling, a thought surfaced in my journaling. A relationship is made of two people. Both must hold each other loosely. A truly healthy fulfilling relationship is one in which each person is there because they want to be there, not because they need to be. And so I started wondering about the possibility of holding someone loosely while they held on tight. What would that connection feel like? Humbled, I realized that the more important question is how do I respond if I perceive this to be the case? I like to be needed. It wasn’t hard for my sister to convince me to warm her side of the bed because deep down I desire to fill someone else’s needs. So, it is not enough for me to recognize that I exist apart from the other person and that without them I will survive. I must also recognize that they exist apart from me, and without me they will also survive. To truly love someone is to desire them to not need me. And that hits me hard. Because my true fear is this–if they do not need me, will they still want me? 

And so this path ended up circling me back to the first path. I have experienced the loss that comes through death, but that is not the only type of loss that we can experience in life. Loss can also come in the form of rejection. And that type of loss I am a whole lot more uncomfortable with. 

A Dance, in which it all gets mixed together and I experience a metaphor of life.

Friday night was Advent Affair–a night of revelry and dancing for the students of VTS and their significant others. John and I have always gone, partly because once I realized that I was expected and encouraged to dance in public at this thing, I don’t like to miss it. This year, both John and I approached this day with a bit of hesitation. Despite being a part of this community for 2 1/2 years, we both feel the struggle to find our true space within it. John’s stress and depression affect his willingness to interact with people and the pain that surfaced earlier in this week for me colored my perspective as well. I went for the dancing and I think my husband went for me. And so we walked in that door, full of our insecurities and pain, but there. Present. And I danced. Two previous years of Advent Affair have loosened me up and given me the permission to let go on the dance floor. Sometimes I danced alone. Sometimes I danced with a partner. Sometimes I danced with everyone in that room at the same time. Some moments were awkward. Some were full of confidence. I smiled and laughed and eventually lost myself and found myself in the chaotic abandon of full body expression. I’m still learning to dance with people. Since I was not raised in a tradition that valued dancing, I have learned to dance alone. And in my few experiences of dancing on a crowded dance floor, I am surprised at how easy it is to still be dancing alone. But that’s ok. I’ve worked so hard to learn to be safe alone, that I don’t mind taking a bit longer to learn to dance with others.

My night ended with a rare dance with John. Rare because he has not yet learned the art of abandoning himself to the dance. Our steps are not very synched, our energies so very different, but I still found extreme pleasure in being in his arms, being together with him, letting it be whatever it was. This is life–sometimes awkward, sometimes graceful. A beautiful attempt to connect with those around us. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we get it right. Our best attempts flow out of the security and confidence we find in ourselves. But even our shy inexperienced steps are rewarded because we are all in this together, and our energies interact to fill and empty and play and learn and dance with each other.

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